FOXBORO, Mass. — Two years ago, Dont’a Hightower coined a catchy nickname for the New England Patriots’ “Boogeymen” defense.
On Wednesday, the veteran linebacker unveiled a new moniker for himself: the Trash Man.
Hightower, who had what position coach Jerod Mayo called “by far” his best game of the season in Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans, said he’s willing to fill any role for the Patriots’ defense, regardless of his statistical output.
“I’ve never been a numbers guy,” Hightower said. “I’m going to do whatever I need to do for the team. Whether it’s knocking the (expletive) out of linemen, if I’m supposed to have eight or 10 tackles a game or have eight sacks, then that’s what I plan on doing. But I’m just going to do my job.
“I’m the trash man. I just play football. Not a big numbers guy and never have been. … As long as I think that I’m doing my job and I’m putting my teammates in spots, whether it’s a pick game or making the right stunt call, then I’m good. … Just doing the hard stuff, bro. I never have been a big newspaper dude or whatever. I just want to do my job and win.”
Hightower played a key role in New England’s second victory of the season, registering four run stops as the Patriots rallied to beat the Texans. It was an encouraging performance from the longtime co-captain, who’d played below his usual level in his first few games back from his COVID-19 opt-out.
“High’s a pretty versatile guy,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “He can do a lot of things for us. And does whatever we ask him to do. He’s a very unselfish player. He’s so versatile that he’s a guy you can ask to do a lot of things and he can handle a lot of different things, not necessarily the same every week but depending on what the priorities are: pass rush, running game, end of the line, off the ball, handle the fronts, make coverage adjustments.
“He’s a smart player. He has such a good grasp of the overall defense and the offense that we’re playing. How to use the tools that we have and to apply them to the situations that come up. He does a lot of things for us. He’s really good.”
Hightower is an important figure in the Patriots’ retooled defense, which struggled in the first half Sunday before rebounding and shutting Houston out for the final 28 minutes. Excluding fellow linebacker Jamie Collins, who played three snaps and bagged a sack, Hightower was Pro Football Focus’s highest-graded New England defender in that 25-22 victory.
“Hightower had a great game,” Mayo, himself a former Patriots linebacker, said Tuesday. “Not only, if you were to look at the stat sheet it doesn’t really pop off the stat sheet like, ‘Wow, this guy had a great game.’ But if you were to watch the film and see his overall physicality I would say it was by far his best game. Honestly, now it’s all about stacking it together, right? Stacking these games together.
“High is definitely one of our smartest guys, not only on defense but on this football team. Now it’s just all about, ‘All right, how do we keep this guy going on a down-after-down basis and play at that high level?’ “
Edge rusher Matt Judon succinctly summed up Hightower’s impact.
“He does do a lot of dirty jobs for us,” Judon said, “but he makes it look good.”